Friday, March 27, 2009

When Does Ignorance Become an "Answer"?

As you likely know, Texas recently has become the new Kansas as unabashed YEC and school board member Don McElroy pushes for new education standards in Texas science classrooms. The Austin American-Statesman editorial section has become a really interesting read for any interested atheist. An idea was expressed this morning in the letters to the editor by one citizen, and I wanted to add some input. Unfortunately, my response would be longer than the letters section would allow, so, I am adding my input here:

Claim 1: Each spring supernatural garden fairies make my garden grow using magical techniques that are a mystery to my limited human mind. I know this is true, because I have seen my garden grow each spring. And I can demonstrate to others that my garden grows each spring; so, my garden fairy belief is not based on ignorant faith, because I have demonstrable evidence to support it.

Claim 2: In the beginning, a supernatural being made the whole universe exist using magical techniques that are a mystery to limited human minds. A letter-writer knows this is true, I am guessing, because he/she can see the universe exists. And he/she can demonstrate to others that the universe exists; so, his/her god belief is not based on ignorant faith, since he/she has evidence to support it.

In a letter to the editor in this morning’s Austin American-Statesman, Pat H. noted that science has no answers, but “God does.”

The difference between my fairy claim and Pat’s god claim is that more people believe Pat’s claim, and Pat’s claim (assuming Pat is basing this claim on the Bible—and statically speaking, here in Austin—there are pretty good odds of that) comes with a few thousand pages of pretty much irrelevant window dressing to distract adherents from the fact that the claim is nothing more than a promotion of willful human ignorance.

I'm thinking Pat would likely reject my fairy claim.

So, my question is this: How many distracting details and adherents do I need to add to my fairy story before it stops being a promotion of willful human ignorance and becomes an “answer”?


  1. Concluding intelligence behind something is not ignorance.

  2. Calling that conclusion "science" is ignorance.

  3. Freethinker:

    Did you even read the post? I thought it pretty much summed up how ridiculous belief in god is.

    You seem to have launched right into your intelligence argument, even though on numerous previous threads you have failed to present any evidence or coherent thought on the matter.

    I suppose every blog needs a trol....

  4. The question I would have for Pat H. is which god ????

    Mr. Freethinker, can you show any empirical evidence for the idea that there is an intellegence behind the universe ? No ??? I didn't think so. That being the case, intellegent design is just as valid as the belief there are faries at the bottom of my garden (which there are).

    Without emperical evidence what you have there is an idea, which is all well and good, but that does not make it worthy of being taught as even a hypothosis much less a theory (as used in scientific circles)

    I am sure you have heard this before -- you can teach you religion in schools if I can teach evolution in your church.

  5. I think you're going to need a couple of centuries of killing people who don't believe in the garden fairies.

    Then you're going to want to write a few books detailing what the garden fairies want and why they bother making the flowers grow in the first place. Also, append an nebulous description of the garden fairies' end-game for the global garden and the role mankind has in it.

    Then you're going to want to create a few competing ideas about how best to honor the garden fairies' work.

    Give that a few more centuries and you'll pretty much end up where we are today.

    Also, make sure it's OK for the priesthood (gardeners, I guess) to molest little kids in the name of the garden fairies and you've got yourself a bona fide contender!

  6. "How many distracting details and adherents do I need to add to my fairy story before it stops being a promotion of willful human ignorance and becomes an “answer”?"

    Easy, you just need the right kind of hat. George Carlin addressed this point in his rant on religions and their hats:

  7. Well... if you want to take the same approach that creationists and ID'ers take, you don't need more facts or details. What you need to do is find an existing theory and attempt to discredit it by any means necessary. It doesn't matter if your criticisms are valid or factual. You just have to make them. Then, when you get no answers, you can point to your fairy theory as the obvious alternative. ;-)

  8. MrFree Thinker said: Concluding intelligence behind something is not ignorance.

    Generally speaking you are correct. However, it is ignorance if the conclusion is based on nothing more than the claim or simple belief that the intelligence is there. To date there is no evidence to support the claim of an intelligence except for an appeal to human ignorance and a retreat to the indefinable.

  9. Howdy Tracie,

    I like where you're going with this one but I think the comparisons between the two claims are not the same.

    We do have an explanation right now for where flowers/plants come from in a garden that most people can grasp.

    We don't have a clear/concise definition on where the universe came from or how it came to be.

    Of course we have people working on it that are a lot smarter than I that may figure it out someday. But even if we don't, you and I agree that just making a claim that some deity was responsible is absurd.

    So, to answer your question.

    "Ignorance seems to become the answer when there isn't any other answer that the person can wrap their heads around"

    You and I both agree that this is never a good answer (making a claim based on ignorance) but that is the mindset of most Christians.

  10. >Concluding intelligence behind something is not ignorance.

    Saying "a mysterious magic thing did it by mysterious magic" is no different than saying "X did it by doing X." It's exactly as informative as a placeholder that contains no data. It doesn't tell me what caused it. It doesn't explain how the cause functioned to create the result. It doesn't tell me anything. It's actually an ignorance placeholder that, for some reason, many people will accept as an answer--but just about only when it comes to religion. Note that I don't have any explanation about what a god is or how it functions or operates.

    To most people, the response "god is the creator of the universe" is sufficient. But that's not any different than saying "the thing that created the universe is the creator of the universe." What did I actually just add to what I don't know, that can be called an "answer" or "knowledge"? The thing that makes the my garden bloom is the "garden bloomer". How is that an explanation or an answer or knowledge? Can I now say that I have an "answer" to what makes my garden bloom?

    Relabeling "I don't know the answer" as "John" or "god" or "fairies" or "X" doesn't turn ignorance into knowledge.

  11. >We don't have a clear/concise definition on where the universe came from or how it came to be.

    Swifty: This is part of the distracting window dressing that is irrelevant that I mentioned. If absolutely no explanation is offered to explain a phenomenon--that still does not convert a nonanswer into an answer.

  12. "We do have an explanation right now for where flowers/plants come from in a garden that most people can grasp. "

    If you ask enough questions, you will eventually find one that cannot be answered. If we truly understood every chemical reaction that takes place in a garden, and wished to prove so, then it follows that we should be able to begin with nothing more than raw materials and replicate the garden using no seeds, or anything other than chemicals.

    So, it is a fitting analogy. We understand the basic concepts, but the real difference is that we don't have garden fairy proponents trying to confuse people in hopes that they will throw their hands in the air and say "non-fairy-ism is too convoluted. I'm gonna just believe the fairy theory."

  13. @MrFreeThinker:

    You're right, conluding there is intelligence behind something becase you have no better answer isn't ignorance. It is WORSE than ignorance.

    Looking at something complex, not understanding how it came to be that way, and positing indefinable, incomprehensible, supernatural intelligence as an explanation, THEN going on to look down your nose at people because you've duped yourself into thinking this "explanation" is a good one, is WORSE than ignorance. That is wilfull ignorance coupled with arrogance.

    You want to know what I think when I see something complex that I don't understand? I think to myself, "Hmmm, I don't understand that." Then, if I really really want to figure out how it works, I go look for an explanation.

    "I don't know" is a perfect answer for things I don't know...because I DON'T KNOW. Honesty and admitting you don't have an explanation for something is the first step to figuring it out.

    You're welcome to come up with whatever theories you want about "intelligences" behind things we don't have definitive answers for yet, but don't come on here like a little troll and take pot-shots at science because you think you have a great explanation for anything. Duping yourself into thinking you understand how something unknown works when you really don't is not a good idea in my opinion.

    Take the woman who thinks her garden grows because of god or something. We could sit her down and explain everything we could about photosynthesis and soil and gardening, but I guarantee you the first time anything "unexplained" cropped up, she'd say "Ahahh!!! Teh god!"

  14. "Swifty: This is part of the distracting window dressing that is irrelevant that I mentioned. If absolutely no explanation is offered to explain a phenomenon--that still does not convert a nonanswer into an answer."

    No arguments from me. I was just trying to rationalize it from a Christians point of view and why they may give a "non answer" as a n answer.Not saying it's correct

    (Swifty32661 is Mike Swift is if you didn't know)

  15. >That is wilfull ignorance coupled with arrogance.

    Sparrow: You have hit on one of my favorite points here. Atheists are often accused of arrogance and claiming they know everything--by theists who claim that any process beyond their capacity to understand has to be the work of a god's divine miracle. It couldn't possibly be merely a process they can't understand.

    And as you say--you are the one admitting what you don't know; but somehow you're the one who is arrogant.

    >but I guarantee you the first time anything "unexplained" cropped up, she'd say "Ahahh!!! Teh god!"

    Ironically, I don't even think we'd have to get to something unknown. Explaining even something like photosynthesis would likely get you a reply akin to "Isn't it amazing how god makes these things work?"

    Not only is god the nonexplanation explanation for the unknown; somehow he also gets all the credit for the knowns that appear to be solely the function of nature working under natural processes that can be examined and understood.

  16. Swifty: Thanks for the clarification. I'm glad you made your point in that case, so I could offer a rebuttal in addition to the post--in case someone else comes along to think in the theistic terms you were examining.

  17. >So, it is a fitting analogy. We understand the basic concepts, but the real difference is that we don't have garden fairy proponents trying to confuse people in hopes that they will throw their hands in the air and say "non-fairy-ism is too convoluted. I'm gonna just believe the fairy theory."

    Thomas--that nailed it. Thanks for that.

  18. If someone's going to go with the "God did it!" answer, we're more than justified in asking why he did such a lousy job.

    Exhibit A... male nipples. I can't tell you the amount of times I've been hunched over my coffee-cup trying to get some juice from those bad boys, but not a drop. What the hell, God? If this is his handywork, I am not impressed!

    Then there's the larger issue of why a 'perfect' being would feel the need to create life, which if anything, points to him lacking something.

  19. @ Jon hell, In biochem class we found an even WORSE example of how inanely 'designed' the human body is. It was covered at the end but apparently there is a condition called Salvaging deficiency which is an enzyme defect that prefects the recycling of nucleotide derivatives. You would think that this defect would be only a minor inconvenience yet interestingly and for reasons that are not yet clear, the condition can lead to the patient SUFFERING DELIRIUM THAT CAUSES THEM TO EAT THEMSELVES. Yes, because of a tiny metabolic flaw somehow they neurologically get compelled to chew off their fingers, toes, and lips. We saw a picture of a poor soul who had ripped off his entire lips, top and bottom from eat to eat and CONSUMED THEM, as well as chewing off the tips of his tongue. WTF kind of perfect designer would miss this bug? Did he not beta test? To draw an analogy for Mr. FreeThinker, this is equivalent to your computer starting to wipe its hard drive clean just because dumpprep isn't working properly.

  20. @Mr.Freethinker Just to side track, I feel the need to explain to you WHY you're facing hostility here. It's because you're dishonest. In your first posts and choice of name and all you presented yourself as a ratonalist and open minded individual, naturally thinking such a quality would endear you to an atheist community. In reality though you had a religious agenda to promote and argue your intelligent design, and you chose to do so as if you were a 'free thinker' promoting common sense and true science. This is dishonest and frankly insulting, yet sadly indicative of the ID movement in general. ID is fruit from the poisoned true since it is a conscious political movement to disguise religion as science. And that's not just my opinion, the US courts of law assert it. The tragic thing is, you would have been more openly received if you had been honest with us and didn't hide your true self. You wouldn't like any of us appearing on a forum or blog insisting we were Christians and then using that false face to try to poke holes in theology would you? Your dishonesty makes you an intellectual scoundrel who can't be trusted in future matters. Though I encourage you NOT to try this trick again both for real free thinkers sanity and to prevent your own embarrassment, for future reference, you will NOT find real free thinkers or really anyone who hasn't drunk the ID koolaid use the term "Darwinist".

  21. Sorry for simuposting but, forgot to sing praises to the author of the post for the Dilbert reference. FTW

  22. Ing, and Jon, I always like bringing up the appendix and the wisdom teeth, two things that if designed to act like they do now, were designed simply to cause pain, and in the case of the appendix, unnecessary surgery and potential death.

    So I guess their designer is a pretty right bastard.

  23. @ Mask

    The Appendix isn't as good as wisdom teeth since it does serve an incidental purpose of providing an area of the tract immune to the bacterial depolularization effect of diharea. So basically it allows you to keep a buffer of your symbiots after you poop out a hurricane so they can repopulate the tract quicker. This purpose was recently hypothesized and is fairly new (being a bio guy I read it in the peer) so I won't assert it as fact yet (note to McFreeThinker how real scientists remain skeptical to even things that SOUND right and reasonable until it's thoroughly tested). Still though that is a very impressive adaptation to the Cecum (sic?)'s original function.

  24. Mr FT, I got another one for you..

    If you claim that the universe itself is proof of God, then how do you distinguish what God specifically did/does from the natural processes and principles we have discovered and continue to discover?


    After all, if I claim that "George called TAE tv show," that claim is comprised of distinct elements. George is distinct from other people. "Calling" can be distinguished from NOT calling. And so on.


    We non-believers need to hammer this home: Atheism does NOT require us to explain the entire cosmos such as to rule out God.

    It is THEIR job to show if and how this God / Designer / First Mover / Supreme Intelligence / Etc. is extant and operational.

  25. "Your dishonesty makes you an intellectual scoundrel who can't be trusted in future matters. (Ing)"

    Well, at least he's not a varlet, cad or mountebank.

  26. That response would have been too long? What are they expecting? Postcards with 3-words-per-line size crayon text?

  27. @ Brian

    Well, I found no reason to be rude to the old chappy *adjusts monocle*

  28. Ing, I hadn't heard that. The only thing I ever heard about the appendix was that it was supposed to be an evolutionary left over that helped us digest bark. Where I heard that, I have zero clue. And I never really cared enough to look into it, so take it for what you will.

    However, if what you say is true, it does make the appendix just as good as wisdom teeth, and my argument still stands, because why would something like the appendix need to exist if it is almost useless? I mean it can be removed and you can continue life with little to no side effects.

    Unlike, say, having a kidney removed, or having a heart attack.

  29. @ Mask

    Yeah, Like I said it's a hypothesis that is pretty much in its infancy so just bear that in mind. Though it certainly makes sense from a microbiology and physiology POV I'm skeptical and reserving stating it as canon (no pun intended) until it gets more peer review and analysis.

    Another good and untainted example is the tail bone. Literally no purpose and it's just taking up space that in a perfect world should be used by soemthing like a kick ass musk gland or ink pouch

    *zoidberg wooping*

  30. Ing: Or even better, whatever it is that allows spiders to spin webs. Who wouldn't want to moon someone and then cover them in webbing?!

    Oh, and who can forget about that wonder of wonders, the pinkie toe. You could lose both your pinkie toes and suffer zero in the way of balance issues.

  31. Aren't you all forgetting the most obvious one? Take a breath and think about it...

  32. People, all of this talk about vestigial organs, nucleotide recycling and the general sloppiness of design of the human body is pointless. Don't you know that none of this existed before the fall?

    No matter what kind of challenge, philosophical or biological, you pose to a fundie, his answer will be "Goddidit!" Until you ask him why things are so fucked up - then, naturally, the answer immediately changes to "WE did it!"

    And do you think Mr. "Free Thinker" (they shouldn't be allowed to play with irony; they tend to hurt themselves) will get anything out of this? Will he think, for a moment, "Maybe they have a point?" Of course not; he'll be back in the very next thread, spouting the same crap.

    When you try to explain things to him as though he were capable of understanding, you only encourage him. He's been pulling this routine for some time on Pharyngula under the pseudonym "Facilis" (check out his apologetics blog). He's become a running gag over there; he's been shot down more times than a German biplane, but he refuses to give up. He just keeps posting the same garbage, over and over - 'cause, you know, if you repeat something often enough, it becomes true.

    He's the new Rho (and Martin, what was it you said to me the other day about banning them if they pass a threshold of obdurateness?). There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of these cretins. If we could just figure out how to convert them to energy...

  33. I don't know if anyone's brought this up yet, but there's another important (in my view) area of ignorance that's overlooked when it comes to the xian creation myths.

    That being: the xian creation myths are not only not unique and special (as the xians claim) but are also rather ho-hum garden-variety creation tales. In fact, there's a VERY large corpus of folklore cross-culturally that reads virtually identically to the stories in Genesis that has been known for quite some time.

    In fact, the disciplines of folklore and mythology are very rich academically largely because there's so much of this stuff in human history. I'm sure there are reams of MA and Phd. theses out there detailing this exact thing.

    Turns out, tales virtually congruent to those in Genesis have long, long predated those that appear in the bible and are in fact very widespread in human cultures. There seems to be evidence even in prehistory of similar creation folklore.

    Now, to try to answer the original question: I'd say a tall tale like the Genesis story or Tracy's magic fairy story attains the status of "truth" or "explanation" once it becomes a consensus among the people in the society. I'll have to leave what constitutes consensus rather fuzzy here because I really don't know at exactly what point you can call a belief or position "consensus" (in academia I believe it's 95% agreement among scholars involved in research).

    At some point, a tale becomes integrated into the culture - at that point it's no longer a "tale" but accepted (somehow) as a kind of "truth".

    This is, I'd say, just a fancy way of saying everyone _agrees_ that the tale is explanatory; this has nothing to do with the actual _truth value_ of the tale.

    That's an entirely different matter of course....

    But that's my whack at the question...


  34. "Concluding intelligence behind something is not ignorance."

    Well, I'd refine this a bit. Concluding intelligence behind something _with a basis in evidence for concluding that_ definitely is not ignorance.
    _without such a basis_, however, such a claim IS a champion of ignorance.

    More precisely, it's an advocate of ignorance as a basis for the claim of _knowledge_.

    This is, to my thinking, the most crucial difference between the atheist position (and science) on belief and knowledge and the position of the religions.

    Belief and knowledge are quite distinct things in atheism: a belief is a notion held in the mind based on no real experience with reality. As such, its truth value is indeterminate (i.e. magic fairies tending Tracy's garden - true? false? we don't know, no evidence either way).

    Knowledge is also a notion in the mind but one whose truth value _can_ be verified by observation of our world (i.e. the world is flat - demonstrably false, our solar system is heliocentric - demonstrably true).

    In religion, however, these concepts are (arbitrarily) either conflated or distinguished based on simple whim rather than objective observation of our world. Belief and knowledge can have the same status in certain arbitrary cases (i.e. the existence of god, the occurrence of the virgin birth, etc) and different statuses in other arbitrary cases (i.e. accepting that the world is round, heliocentric solar system, etc. Socio/political pressure came to bear on this over the years).

    Now, regarding Tracy's original question:

    The crucial thing is that knowledge is _independent_ of consensus, precisely because the truth value of a claim to knowledge is _verifiable_. That is, consensus is not required of a claim to knowledge. I.e. that the earth orbits the sun is true _regardless of who may or may not express agreement with that statement_. This can be demonstrated to be the case even if noone _believes_ it to be the case.

    Belief is a bit different in that it depends more heavily on consensus. In fact, it's almost required that there be widespread _agreement_ on the belief in order for it to be thought to be _true_. But note that no _verification_ of a belief is necessary for that, only _agreement_.


  35. Another excellent post by tracieh --- followed by yet another poor reply by the other side (i.e. the "MrFreeThinker"). Be in on atheist blogs like this one or on theist blogs like ray comforts, one of the things that has brought be toward the atheist side is this pattern --- that is the atheist simply ask (or answer) questions with will based logic and facts where the other side, the thiest, fail to do so. The thiest have, in my humble opinion, failed and continue to fail support their assertions with facts and logic. I know I state what many consider is obvious, but I thought these few words would indicate there folks out here observing this debate and learning from it.

    Keep up the good work traiceh.

  36. For sheer unique creation myths, I am insanely favorable to the Lovecraftian Old Ones yarns.

    "Life arose on earth when extrademensonal god like alien entities let their genetically engineered living construction equipment drop their waste in the ocean. That waste provided the material that created the first 'native' life on earth. The gods themselves see humanity as a side effect of their own greater machinations. The only value man kind has to them is as food, or amusement"

    Just for the sheer balls it takes to say "yes there are gods, but most hate you on principal since you're descended from piss and shit, and the best of them are just indifferent to you."

  37. >Just for the sheer balls it takes to say "yes there are gods, but most hate you on principal since you're descended from piss and shit, and the best of them are just indifferent to you."<

    Yeah, but this is a pretty ho-hum common theme in many of the world's other creation myths too. The great spirit dude vomits, bleeds, defecates or sugically removes man and woman over and over again.

    Once you read just a few of the tales, you can't help laugh at the Christians clenching their fists and gritting their teeth trying to figure out Genesis and how to use it to avoid the hellfire.

    One of the very few humorous things about Christianity - watching the puzzlement on their faces when they see their tales rendered with unmistakable fidelity in mythology texts. And by any number of cultures that predated the visit of God's Son by many thousands of years.....

    That's why I don't even see the bible as interesting literature. It's just garden-variety mythology obtainable in similar form from almost any other culture in the world.



  38. Yes, but it's no divine vomit or the like. It's just urine from glorified backhoes.


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